BIRDS OF PASSAGE – movie revie

BIRDS OF PASSAGE (Pájaros de verano)
The Orchard
Reviewed for by: Harvey Karten
Director: Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra
Screenwriter: Maria Camila Arias, Jacques Toulemonde based on an original idea by Cristina Gallego
Cast: Carmeña Martinez, José Acosta, John Nurváez, Natalia Reyes, JoséVicente Cotes, Juan Martinez, Greider Meza
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 1/10/19
Opens: February 13, 2018
Pájaros de verano Movie Poster
If you visit Panama city on vacation, you would do well to visit the Embera Indians in Darién province. They live as you would imagine indigenous people live, using little electricity, dressing in colorful albeit minimalist garb, and putting on a great show for tourists who are treated as well to a fantastic lunch of fried fish, caught that day. You may think that they are amazed every time they see Americans (other than Native Americans) but it turns out that these folks are quite educated, cultured, with many having traveled worldwide. They live as they are partly because they like it but also because the Panama government gives them special financial benefits provided that they continue welcoming tourists, thereby raising the chance of attracting more people to their shores than otherwise. You might think that this is corruption via money, and perhaps it is, but only a really small scale. If you want to see large-scale degeneracy, take in Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s “Birds of Passage,” or “Pájaros de verano” in the original, Spanish title.

What you see here could be called “Godfather 3,” simplistic though that is, because the body count is high (most violence off screen, though) and because the various indigenous clans of Colombia’s Guajira region in that country’s northeast have gone to war with each other, most having fallen under the influence of blood money. At the same time, there is a struggle between tradition and commerce, between doing things the way they have been done for a thousand years, of falling prey to the competition and evils of modern times. “Birds of Passage,” the title’s referring both to the one-engine planes that carry marijuana from Colombia to the U.S. for a special of fowl that have lived there at least as long as the indigenous people.

Before money makes its entrance, the clan is living according to tradition. Under the guidance of Ursúla (Carmiña Martinez), a strong leader and matriarch, her daughter Zaida (Natalia Reyes) is declared “a woman,” as would a debutante in our own society. As the group dance, Raphayet (José Acosta), following a long-standing mating ritual, proposes, but the dowry demanded by the girl’s uncle Peregrino (José Vicente Cotes) is too high for the newly engaged man. Ironically, the old tradition of the dowry is to cause the conflicts which will destroy the indigenous society.

The action of the movie takes place from 1960 to 1980. A clash of civilizations occurs when Raphayet and Moíses (Jhon Narvaez) run into young Peace Corps workers who are not the idealistic youths you’d expect. Their goal is to buy marijuana from the locals and have it flown back to the States, not the way our President believes that drugs are being imported by land. With the jungle-based plantation run by Aníbal (Juan Martinez), Raphayet becomes a businessman, trading in his traditional hut for some lavish digs, thereby uprooting everything the clan had stood for over the centuries. When the pilots of the one-engine planes are discovered hiding weed, thereby indicating that they are buying from other clans against their agreement, the killings begin, families fighting families like the violence prone mafia in the “Godfather” series.

One cast member performs as a Greek chorus, reciting poetry and singing hymns both announcing and foreshadowing the gunplay to follow. Tradition simply cannot compete with the love of money, which is the root of this evil, in a movie that’s surprisingly slow-moving for most of the way but exploding in mayhem during the concluding scenes. This is an epic tale involving communities that most of us rarely see on the screen or in real life, an involving story that takes us step by step toward the breaking up of a rich culture.

125 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

HOSTILES – movie review


Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures
Director:  Scott Cooper
Screenwriter:  Scott Cooper
Cast:  Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Wes Studi, Jesse Plemons, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/7/17
Opens: December 22, 2017
Hostiles Movie Poster
It may still surprise some to hear that Columbus did not discover America; that Indians, or Native Americans, were here as far back as 20,000 years ago.  Even while acknowledging this truth, some may still say that the Europeans who made incursions into the U.S. were justified in committing genocide against the original inhabitants, because “the Indians are savages.”  Some add that the tribes did not live together in peace and harmony but made war against one another.  “They do not discriminate,” states Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), the principal Indian personality in Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles.”  He is alluding to the fact that the Comanche tribesmen and the Cheyennes had been enemies, out to kill as many of the others as they can.  As the story unfolds, Cooper will ultimately show that the whites did not live together peacefully either, but are just as adept at killing one another as any other race.

Cooper, whose “Black Mass” deals with Whitey Bulger, the most infamous violent criminal in South Boston history, deals with a criminal element in “Hostiles” as well, though the focus could conceivably be the massive criminality on the part of both an army platoon and their enemies.  If you like, you may call the actions of the Indians against white incursion the Resistance, though both sides could lay claim to that label—the soldiers resisting the presence in America of people from a different culture, the Native Americans fighting against those they consider invaders.

As you might expect, there are periods of drastic violence encouraged by pure hatred, as when in the earliest such action a group of Apaches raid the domicile of a white family, slaughtering all but the mother, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who escapes by hiding.  Yet by 1892, the Indians have more or less been subjugated by the cavalry in Arizona territory.  As such, the army looks for a soldier to escort its prisoner, Chief Yellowhawk to his Montana digs. And who is chosen by the colonel to lead a team?  That would be Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale), who surprisingly is almost fluent in the Cheyenne dialect.  Though he is an educated fellow who reads “Julius Caesar” in the original Latin, he has no use for Yellowhawk.  The theme of the film becomes the way that through his meetings with the old and sick Indian, he becomes a mensch, understanding that there are two sides to every conflict.

Blocker’s trust in the Indians he is escorting through Comanche territory on the way to Montana is such that he ultimately unchains them, freeing them to fight alongside the army lest they die together.  As though the job were not complex enough, the army quartet, made up of the captain, a corporal, a sergeant and a private, pick up a criminal, Philip Wills (Ben Foster), dealing with him with such indifference to his humanity that Wills could be called part of the resistance as well.

The inevitable happens in the romance department.  Rosalie, who had lost her entire family to the Apaches, warms up to the captain.  They may or may not “get it on.”  A climactic scene involving white civilians who are themselves opposed to the actions of the army will conclude the physical action, while an epilogue, involving a train to Chicago, wraps up the story.

“Hostiles” has fast-moving action but these are few and far between.  Most of the movie involves phlegmatic talk by people who drone on whether in monotones or near-whispers.  Though many films can profit from a slow pace, the tempo frequently halts the momentum of a tale that is more about its varied cinematography than about compelling battles.  “Hostiles” was filmed in the West; in New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona.

Rated R.  133 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C+
Acting – B-
Technical – B-
Overall – C+

WIND RIVER – movie review


Acacia Entertainment
Director:  Taylor Sheridan
Screenwriter:  Taylor Sheridan
Cast:  Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Kelsey Asbille, Teo Briones
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/21/17
Opens: November 14, 2017

  • Image result for wind river poster
    We hear in the news that the city of Baltimore has the highest murder rate this year, so far, at about 358.  But you can’t avoid people who think that killing is OK as long as the taking out of an adversary will get them ahead in the world.  Nor do you have to be a sociologist to know that people living under extreme physical conditions in rural areas where there’s nothing else to do may seek sport in assault and murder, as do the no-good-niks in Taylor Sheridan’s sophomore directing with “Wind River.”  Taylor had been imaginative enough to contribute the movie “Vile” a few years back, about a woman hitchhiker who knocks out the driver and passengers out with gas and plants  devices inside the base of their skulls.  This time the women are all pure but some men are vile.  It’s an entertainment that evokes a lot of rumination but if you’re a Tarantino fan, Sheridan will cater to you wish some rousing melodrama—including a Mexican standoff that shows that he might be paying homage to Q.T.

Two solid actors anchor the drama, Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert, a worker in the wildlife department on the snow-covered grounds of Wyoming and Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a young novice working for the FBI who is sent out to the woods alone to solve a murder.  Of course the two work together and we wonder when an obligatory “romance” scene will develop, but that has to wait until after the end credits roll and the movie concludes.  There is some hanky panky, though, as we see in a flashback involving some cuddling between Wilma (Julia Jones) and her s.o., a man with a number of roommates who work with him on an oil rig.

The action takes place on a particularly decrepit Indian reservations with Ben (Graham Greene) standing in for the law as the sheriff.  When Wilma’s dead body is discovered, the coroner, Dr. Whitehurst (Eric Lange) is unable to write that the cause of death was murder, despite evidence that she had been raped and had died while running to escape a band of morons.  Chief among the scum, Pete (James Jordan), has the role of acting out a Sam Peckinpah-style monologue, a surprisingly over-the-top piece of melodrama in an otherwise, mostly soft-spoken group.

What’s odd here is that Jeremy Renner’s character Cory Lambert is not a lawman.   He is a tracker who looks out for the sheep and other potential prey by shooting wolves and, if he can find some, lions.  In fact the picture opens with a bang: we watch Lambert looking through the telescopic sight of his high-powered rifle to take out a wolf who is moments from attacking a band of sheep (or goats).  Since the FBI agent is wet behind the ears, and because the regular law enforcers from the sheriff’s office need the skills of a tracker, Lambert takes on the major role in this most quiet, though in key spots melodramatic, work.

Taylor Sheridan is the man to watch.  He is involved now in a TV special called “Yellowstone,” wherein a ranching family in Montana must face off against people encroaching his land.  City people can learn about rural living from Sheridan’s films, enough for me to think that I’m hardly suffering from spending my whole life in Brooklyn.

Rated R.  111 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – B
Technical –  B+
Overall – B